Westcoast Black Theatre: 10 years a charm

Bradenton Herald – About this time last year, the fate of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe was hanging on the wing of a prayer. Nine years of hard work and entertaining the masses seemed to be ending.

The Historic Asolo Theater’s schedule couldn’t accommodate the troupe anymore, leaving it without a home. Money reserves dried up. And, hopes of presenting a new season were vanishing quickly.

Artistic director Nate Jacobs was about to give up on his longtime vision to showcase black theater in Sarasota. Though he had supporters over the years, other people told him his dream would falter. That audiences wouldn’t come. They said there was no place for black theater here.

“People for years seemed like they just sat around to watch me fail,” Jacobs said. “For years, that’s how I felt.”

What a difference a year makes.

This season, in celebration of its 10th anniversary, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe begins on a brighter note with a stronger board of trustees and a more optimistic outlook. The anniversary gala at Michael’s On East last fall drew so many supporters that the event sold out. Even still, on the night of the party, people continued to show up at the door in hopes of mingling and watching the festive entertainment.

Seeing the community turn out in droves that night made the previous nine years of joys and struggles worth it for Jacobs.

And those negative voices he would hear from the community — he knew they weren’t true. Look at Broadway, he said. Shows like “The Color Purple” and “Dreamgirls” were bona fide hits.

“The world loves African American or cultural-type theater,” Jacobs said. “And I know that that’s true. I already knew what my vision was regardless of what anybody said to me. I knew what my heart was saying and what I had to do. I was a visionary and this vision was real. What that party did for me was confirm to me that I was doing the right thing.”

His latest confirmation: ticket sales.

Subscriptions are already up for this season, with a total of nearly 600. That’s more than the company has had in several years, Jacobs said.

One of the most noticeable and recent changes for Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is a stronger board that includes the expertise of Howard J. Millman. Millman is serving a two-year term as president of the troupe’s board of trustees. His efforts have included creating an executive director position — held by interim Christine Jennings — so the organization can operate smoothly.

Millman is an expert on reviving ailing theaters. In 1995, he helped turn the struggling Asolo Repertory Theatre around by balancing its budget and building its subscriber base. He served as producing artistic director there until 2006, but his connection to the company goes back to 1968, when he began a 12-year term as managing director.

After Millman retired from his second stint with Asolo Rep, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe asked him to serve on its board in 2007. He and Jacobs already knew each other from their Asolo days.

Jacobs said Millman always had confidence in his dream. Millman never doubted his abilities.

“Nate is a terrific leader in molding that talent into very delightful performances,” Millman said.

When Millman first sat on the troupe’s board, he offered advice to Jacobs and observed operations.

“I sat and analyzed what was wrong and I realized what they needed was management help,” Millman said. “It’s wonderful artistically but (Jacobs) had no help. He had nobody there. He was the only person running it.”

In fact, the challenges of running the troupe alone had taken its toll on Jacobs last year.

“I was feeling for the first time burnt out of just dragging this vision down the road many times by myself,” Jacobs said. “I had a panel of young actors and aspiring artists. All of these people were in training. So on top of training them and being an example for them and giving the opportunity to them, I was dragging the organization.”

Millman, also worried about the future of the troupe, encouraged Jacobs to hang in there and to try to present the 2008-09 season with no money or marketing. He helped Jacobs find a new venue at the last minute — the unlikely Arts Center Sarasota.

To help lift his own spirits, Jacobs planned a season featuring music from the 1970s — his favorite time period.

The only issue left was finding enough funds to sustain the troupe so it could survive. Jacobs, not knowing where else to turn, called talk show host Jerry Springer, who lives on Bird Key. He and Springer had been chatting back and forth about the Troupe. Springer seemed interested in Jacobs’ dream.

“He thought it was definitely needed in Sarasota,” Jacobs said.

When Jacobs told Springer about how financial troubles were threatening to put an end to the troupe, Springer said he would send him a check.

But he didn’t say for how much.

“I had no idea how to weigh out what he would do,” Jacobs said of the gift.

When the check came, it was for $10,000.

“And that’s what kicked off 2008-2009,” Jacobs said. “He was the savior.”

Word of mouth brought crowds into the Arts Center. They loved the troupe performing in the intimate 180-seat space.

Since last year, volunteers and generous donors have stepped in to help wherever they were needed. Their efforts include a refurbished professional-looking Web site and a small but professional marketing crew — things the troupe never had before.

“It’s like the organization now is in the best place it has ever been,” said Jacobs. “It’s now the vision that I have always envisioned organizationally. We just need to continue to build the funding base.”

During its existence, the troupe has been funded mainly on arts grants.

As the troupe continues to grow, Jacobs has other things he’d like to accomplish, such as creating a quality performing arts training school for young actors who can’t afford the cost of acting programs. He would also like to tour and present children’s theater and outreach.

Board members and Jacobs agree that finding a permanent home is a must. Millman hopes that since the organization is back on the right track, a home will be possible in the future.

Meanwhile, Millman is going to do what he does best.

“My entire career has been getting things like this stabilized and off the ground,” he said. “That’s what I did. That’s what I’m helping to do now. For me, it keeps my juices going.”

published Jan. 17, 2010

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